A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon (April 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Be Generous with Praise"

     Let me begin by saying that we are so blessed to have our Growing Tree pre-school.
     To our pre-school director, Cathy Bigger and her dedicated staff, on behalf of First United Methodist Church, we just want to say thank you for all you do to make this a safe and fun place for the children who attend our pre-school.
     In a ranking of occupations according to the degree of importance and lack of appreciation, guess which occupation was at the top of the list?  Being a preschool teacher. 
     What job can be more important than the task of caring for a class of young children and helping those children to grow and learn in a safe environment where they are loved and nurtured?
     And to the children, their parents, and family members who are part of our Growing Tree program, thank you for choosing this place to bring your children and for being with us this morning in worship.
     We all know how important it is to offer praise for a job well done. We are to be generous in our praise. The same is true in giving praise to God.
     Psalm 150 is the very last Psalm found in the Book of Psalms.  It is a wonderful concluding Psalm.  In this very short Psalm of just six verses, the word “praise” appears thirteen times. 
     In fact, the final five Psalms, Psalm 146 through Psalm 150, all begin and end with the phrase, “Praise the Lord.”  It’s like the Bible is sending us a strong message.  Be generous with your praise to God.
     Psalm 150 answers four questions about what it means for us to praise God.  It answers where, why, how, and who.
     Let’s begin with the “where.”  The Psalmist begins by saying, “Praise God in his sanctuary, praise him in his mighty firmament!”
     When the Psalmist wrote this, he was thinking about the Temple as the place to worship God. The Temple was the central place where the people of Israel believed God resided. The Psalmist isn’t saying that we shouldn’t praise God in other places, but he is saying that there is something special about worshipping together in one place as God’s people.
     I’m told that the steeple of our church is 130 feet from the ground. That’s up there really high! It’s so tall that you can easily see our church when you’re driving on the highway around Athens. We want people to know that we are a church where all are welcome to come and worship.
     I still remember what one of our former pastors, Rev. Dan Kiger here at Athens First said about this place a few weeks ago when he preached a sermon here. He said that because of our unique location next to the university that God wants our church to be a haven of blessing and peace.
     This is a place where college students can come and know that God is present in their life as they are away from home and working on their degree. And at the same time, our church is also a place where preschool children can come to grow and learn. Actually, this is a place where all of us can come and grow in our faith together.
     In one of the churches I served, I received a note from a church member who wanted me to know how much our church meant to her. She shared how she was going through a really difficult time in her life. She had been discouraged and feeling really down.
     She went on to write that she decided to come to the church late one night, because she knew that the church was a special place for her. So, she parked her car in the lot where she had a full view of the church building. As she sat in her car and focused on the church, she was able to feel a sense of God’s peace and reassurance that God would help her overcome the problems she was facing at the time. That church was a haven of blessing and peace for her when she needed it the most.
     There is something very special about coming to church every Sunday and I’m not just referring to our hazelnut coffee and pastries that we have here in between our worship services. God seems to always show up in this place that we call church. No wonder that the Psalmist tells us to praise God in the sanctuary.
     So, the Psalmist answers the “where” question.  Where?  In God’s sanctuary.
     The Psalmist also answers the “why” question.  Why praise God?
     For the why, we go to verse 2 of our Psalm.  “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness.”
     We are to praise God for his mighty deeds. One of the reasons that this Psalm falls so close to Easter Sunday is because the good news of God raising Jesus from the dead qualifies as one of those mighty deeds. God raising Jesus from the dead ranks at the top of “The Might Deeds” list.
     When the Psalmist wrote this, he was probably thinking about a number of mighty deeds over the course of Israel’s history like when God parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites to freedom, or like when God led the people into the Promised Land. We often think of these kinds of mighty deeds when we think about God.
     Many of us have participated in small groups during our recent season of Lent. These small groups are designed to help us share with each other how God is at work in our lives.
     Some people like to refer to God’s mighty deeds as “God sightings” or “Closest to God” moments. They are also known as “Thin Place” moments which refer to how heaven and earth often overlap each other, creating a thin place and we experience God in a very real way through our day to day living.
    Where have you been made aware of God’s presence in a very real way?
     Several years ago, a man is getting ready to head off for work.  He is anxious about many things and on top of that, he was running late, and he still needed to drop off his two kids at the preschool. 
     And as he stands in front of the mirror in his bedroom and is frantically putting on his necktie, he can’t help but notice, as he looks over at his closet, that his little four year old girl has taken the shoestrings out from several of his shoes, including the pair that he was going to wear that day. 
     All he can think about is how this will make him even more late for work.  As he continues to put on his necktie, he feels a tug on his pant leg.  Annoyed and still in a hurry, he says to his four year old, “Sweetie…Daddy doesn’t have time for this.  We’re going to be late getting you to preschool.”
     She tugs again at his pant leg a second time and he says, “Please, not now.”  She taps him on the leg yet again, and this time, his four year old daughter points toward the middle of the bedroom floor and with her eyes beaming, she says, “Daddy, look!  I made Jesus’ cross!” 
     And sure enough, there in the middle of the floor were two of the shoestrings she had taken out of a pair of his shoes.  She had one over top of the other, forming the shape of Jesus’ cross.
     Thanks to a little girl who reminded her daddy of the importance of Jesus’ cross, somehow, all of those many distractions and worries of life didn’t seem so important to him anymore.  In that unexpected holy moment, that shoestring cross reminded him that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior.
     And you know what?  That day ended up being one of the best days of my life, thanks to my daughter who reminded me of Jesus’ cross.
     “Thin Place” moments, “Closes to Christ” moments, “God sightings,” whatever you want to call them, happen to us all the time. Children seem to notice them better than we adults. Sometimes we notice them and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes, it’s only when we look back on something that happened in our lives that we are able to recognize how God was present in a very real way.
     Why are we to be generous with our praise to God? The Psalmist from Psalm 150 tells us. We are to be generous with our praise because of God’s mighty deeds.
     Well, that’s the answer to the “where” and the “why” questions.  What about the “how” question? 
     The Psalmist gives us a list of musical instruments to help us praise God.  In verses 3 through 5, we hear about trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals.  We even hear about dancing. But it's disappointing there's no cowbell listed here, and I really wanted some cowbell. You can't can't have enough cowbell!

     It’s interesting to think about the instruments that are listed in our Psalm.  It’s a rich variety which I think is intentional on the part of the Psalmist.  A tambourine.  A harp.  Cymbals.  Loud crashing cymbals at that.
     The Psalmist says that we are to offer our praises to God in a variety of ways.
     The Psalmist answers the question of “how.”  How? We are to worship with a variety of instruments to help us offer our praises to God.
     And the final question.  Who?  Who is to praise the Lord? 
     Verse 6 – “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  That narrows it down, doesn’t it?
     If you have a pulse, then you are welcome to praise the Lord.
     Our denomination, the United Methodist Church has a great slogan which you might have seen on TV over the last few years.  “The United Methodist Church:  Open Hearts.  Open Minds.  Open Doors.”
     Our church is open to all people because God’s invitation is offered to everyone!
     Democrats. Republicans. Independents. Undecided.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Long time Christian.  New Believer.  Seeker.  Agnostic.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Senior Citizen.  High School Senior.  College student. Preschool child.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     White.  Black. Latino.  Native American.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Rich.  Poor.  Somewhere in between.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Methodist.  Pentecostal.  Catholic.  Non-Denominational.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Hymn lovers.  Praise Singers.  Organists.  Drummers.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Bobcats, RedHawks, Buckeyes, Nittany Lions. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”
     Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a member of another church and he said to me, “You know how you and I really like it when someone shows their appreciation to us?  Now, just imagine how God feels when his people praise him every Sunday in worship.”
     One of the last things John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism said before he died was, “I’ll praise my maker while I have breath.”  And he did.
     I can’t think of a better ending to the Book of Psalms.  And it’s a perfect way to end today’s sermon.
     “Praise the Lord!”

Be Generous with Praise
Small Group Questions
Psalm 150
April 10, 2016

This past Sunday, our worship theme centered on Psalm 150 which is a Psalm of praise.

Have someone read Psalm 150 or read it together as a group.

Pastor Robert shared a story about a child who helped her father remember that God was with him at the start of his stressful day.

Share a time when you were having a stressful day and you were reminded that God was with you.

Psalm 150 reminds us to praise the Lord often.

In what ways do you praise the Lord throughout the week?

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